Verdict is in, but who is really guilty?
I hang my head in shame.
Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, two local Muslim men who were
minding their own business until the FBI came into their lives, have
been convicted of supporting terrorism, of all things.
Convicted by a jury of my peers. Not necessarily their peers, but
my peers, meaning ordinary middleclass people from upstate New York,
who sat patiently for 12 days and listened to evidence that in my
opinion was an embarrassment to our country, or should have been
an embarrassment to our country, and then sat for another 3 1/2 days
and discussed that evidence before arriving at their verdict.
Guilty of conspiring to do something that the two probably did not
understand, that in any event they never dreamed of doing until an
FBI undercover operative tricked them into it (an exchange of check
for cash) and that they were so sure was OK they insisted on putting
it in writing.
They were even found guilty of providing support to a terrorist
organization fighting in Kashmir that one of them kept telling the
FBI's snitch, who was secretly recording everything, that he didn't
know anything about and that the other one thought was a musical
Such is the fear of Muslim terrorism, I guess. Such is the irrationality
that has seized us since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Such is the
determination not to take any chances.
That we expend God knows what resources—in FBI agents, translators,
hidden recorders, missile experts—to play what amounts to an
elaborate prank on two unsuspecting Muslim men just to seeik they
will fall for it, which they only partial did.
The bizarre thing is that the two, far from being terrorists or
terroris sympathizers, are not even radical within the Islamic universe.
The, are altogether moderate. In 51 hours of secretly taped conversations
that the FBI produced for our delectation (and we don't know how
many more hours that didn't make the cut), not once did they advocate
violence, not once did they express admiration or support for al-Qaida.
On the contrary, one of then counseled the FBI's snitch, a Pakistani
con-man, to stay away from the people with whom he was supposedly
dealing "ammunitions," including a shoulder-fired missile
which was an FBI prop deployed in this prank. He argued that Islam
would spread by Muslims doing good.
The other urged support for refugee women and children in Kashmir,
if the snitch wanted ta help Kashmir, and in an old diary that the
FBI confiscated and translated he supported parliamentary government
as against Islamic extremism.
And yet a jury convicted them. Of course I wanted to talk to the
jurors after they were discharged, to ask them what went through
their heads, and I pursued them out through the parking garage next
to the courthouse, down on Broadway in Albany, for that purpose,
but they wouldn't talk. They got in their cars and drove off, so
I got no satisfaction in that department.
But I will say this: Our president is very free in his use of the
word "evil" to describe the forces that threaten the United
States, and I don't disagree with him on that, but what would you
call a three-year effort by our own government to dupe two humble
law-abiding immigrants and devastate their families if not evil?
Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, has a wife and four children,
ranging in age from 11 down to just under a year, all of them dependent
on him for support.
Mohammed Hossain, an American citizen originally from Bangladesh,
has a wife and six children, ranging in age from 13 also down to
just under a year, and all of them likewise dependent on him and
on his hole-in-the-wall pizza shop.
Neither of the men, I repeat, was doing anything whatsoever to threaten
this country or to support others who might threaten this country.
But the FBI tricked them, a jury bought the trick, and they now
face some 20 years of incarceration each. And not in the county jail
but most likely in a maximum-security federal prison in Illinois
or Colorado, as supporters of terrorism.
What do you think will become of their wives and children? How will
they support themselves? How will they live? Some of the children
are quite Americanized, I understand, but the wives are not. Not
Think about it. Think about yourself in that position. Living in
a foreign land, trying to function in a foreign language, facing
what they face.
I have spent a little time with the two men, and they both strike
me as decent—Aref religious, thoughtful and scholarly, Hossain,
self-effacing, unsophisticated, hardworking.
They came to this country full of hopes, and they broke no laws
until the FBI very elaborately led them to do so, if you think they
broke laws at all, which I really don't.
So if we're going to talk about evil, is it evil what the FBI did
to these men and their families? Is it evil what the U.S. attorney's
office did in prosecuting the case? I don't have to tell you what
I think. If evil means anything, it has to mean smashing people's
lives for no legitimate reason.
I would like say something to them, if by chance they get to read
this in their isolation cells in the Rensselaer County Jail, where
they await sentencing.
Yassin and Mohammed: I hope you have the strength to endure what
you now face. I suspect you do, that you will find the strength in
your religious faith, a faith that I do not share, but that is obviously
a large part of your lives.
The time may come when Congress will pass a resolution apologizing
to you and others like you who got swept up in the fear that followed
9/11, just as it passed a resolution apologizing to the Japanese-Americans
who got swept up in the fear that followed Pearl Harbor, but that
will probably come too late to do you any practical good. Your lives
will have inched away by then, and your children will be long grown.
I hope they grow up able not to hate America, just as I hope you
too are able not to hate America.
It is just your great misfortune that you were who you were at this
time and in this place, that you were brown-skinned, bearded Muslim
men speaking in foreign accents, in Albany, after the attacks of
9/11. The local FBI office needed to prove itself in the new War
on Terror, and you were it. As simple as that.
I am very sorry for you and your families, and as presumptuous as
it may be, I apologize to you on behalf of my country.
Carl Strock can be reached at 395-3085 or by e-mail
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